'Linmania' May Be Fading, But Its Lessons Linger

Words Can and Do Hurt People, And Poor Research Can Result in Demeaning Stereotypes

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The media frenzy created by Jeremy Lin's success as a basketball player, scholar, devoted Christian and American of Chinese heritage is fading as New York Knicks' losses mount and opponents learn how to contain him. But the lesson of several weeks of "Linsanity" remains as powerful as ever. "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me" is wrong. Words can and do hurt people, and we hear about the damage they cause all the time.

Derogatory words such as chink, jap, gook and a host of other negative terms do hurt people of all backgrounds, races, ethnicities and cultures. These hurtful terms belittle us as people, they categorize and single us out for ridicule, and they thrust unwelcome labels onto us that follow us, as Asian-Americans, from generation to generation.

When ESPN anchor Max Bretos used the headline, "Chink in the Armor," to describe Lin's nine turnovers in a Knicks loss to the New Orleans Hornets, I was astonished and dismayed. How in this day and age can any news anchor even think of using such a derogatory word in a nationally broadcast news segment? It is 2012, for heaven's sake. Racial and ethnic insensitivity should be a thing of the past. Haven't we learned anything over the decades about the use of insulting words, phrases and imagery in advertising, marketing and journalism?

Because I serve as a volunteer to a wide array of community-based groups, I have first-hand knowledge about the demeaning use of terms such as "chink." That includes bullying and taunting of Asian immigrants and Asian-Americans at school and in other social settings; bolstering negative images of Asian-Americans and Asians living in the United States as being perpetual foreigners and never having a rightful place in American society; creating a hostile environment that can lead to vicious hate crimes in communities where people who may appear or sound different are treated with suspicion and disdain.

To add insult to injury, Bretos issued an apology by saying his wife is Asian, and he would never intentionally do anything to disrespect her or the Asian-American community. This apology reminds me of what others have said when they offended black Americans. The accused would defend themselves by saying: "If I offended anyone, I apologize. It was never my intent to upset African-Americans; some of my best friends are black!" Just because you have friends who are black or Asian-American doesn't make those who are offended by derogatory remarks feel better.

It's time to move forward and learn from all that has happened. I support and applaud ESPN for taking decisive steps to deal with those who used the word "chink" on air to describe Jeremy Lin's overall play on the basketball court. I also accept their apology for making such a statement. But if the station truly wishes to set the record straight, it should consider airing a segment that clearly articulates why these words hurt and demean others. I therefore encourage ESPN to take an opportunity to explain what has happened and what steps they are taking to ensure that it doesn't happen again. By doing this, they'll teach others about this incident and how it can be avoided.

On to Ben & Jerry 's.

Ben & Jerry 's recently said it would produce a special ice cream in Jeremy Lin's honor. On the surface, this is a thoughtful idea. The company said the product would include bits of fortune cookies, which elicited a strong and negative response from leaders and consumers of Asian-American heritage. Fortune cookies were invented in the United States and are closely tied to Chinese-American and other Asian-inspired foods. It also represents to many Asian-Americans that other people don't have a wider and more knowledgeable view of Asians and Asian-Americans. We are a community of many cultures, backgrounds, ethnicities and beliefs, and do not want to be lumped together under the image of a specific food item -- especially a fortune cookie. Fortune cookies were created for amusement and fun, the imagery behind them perpetuates an unwanted view that Asians are mysterious, exotic and whimsical.

Most Asian-American consumers aren't upset with Ben & Jerry 's because it does so much good for the world. Since its founding, the company has been involved in a number of philanthropic causes that support a wide variety of diverse communities. The visible involvement has earned it a great deal of respect and admiration from consumers of all backgrounds and cultures. I and others appreciate Ben & Jerry 's quick apology and acknowledgement of the mistake, and all seems to be forgiven.

One final lesson that marketers, advertisers and public-relations practitioners should always remember: The very first step is to do the homework. Research, research and research some more. Ask yourselves a few questions about your plans to determine if your actions can be viewed as offensive, negative, condescending and/or demeaning. Taking this step early will save you a whole lot of time and grief.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Bill Imada is chairman-CEO of the IW Group, New York.
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